To Work for a True Catholicity

I have been trying almost all my life to work for a true catholicity, a fellowship wherein Christians, Hindus, Buddhists, Muslims, Taoists, Jews and the rest could recognise their common Ground, and worship or meditate together without quarrelling, and yet without abandoning their interesting and colorful differences of method and style. I would not really want to see a Buddha-image on the high altar of St. Peter’s or a crucifix in the Kaaba, but it is being increasingly recognised that at the level of contemplative mysticism (or ‘metaphysic’) there is no essential difference between Zen Buddhists, Sufis, Vedantists, and blessedly silent Trappists. For when one gets into the domain of pure contemplation of the Ground of Being, there is no more talk going on inside the head, and therefore no occasion for disputation. There is simply a consciousness clear as crystal and open to truth, reality, or what is-which, as St. Thomas Aquinas would have said, is what all men call God.

Alan Watts – The Supreme Truth (1972 Preface)

Why Not Today?

I was walking to work today listening to Rage Against The Machine on my headphones and at the exact moment in “Guerrilla Radio” where Zack says “What better place than here? What better time than now?” I walked past a woman wearing a t-shirt that read “Why Not Today?”. :)

It is now two weeks since I made a formal decision to not eat meat. Since I made that choice a big weight seems to have lifted off my shoulders. I’m not interested in making a case for not eating meat here, but I want to talk about making decisions.

Going “vegetarian” was something I was considering for a long time, and it had increasingly become a source of stress for me. When it came time to eat I would think a lot about it, feeling guilty about possibly eating meat, then stressing out about it. Then a few weeks ago, a single image struck me, and I made a ‘now-or-never’ choice. Since I’ve made that choice, there is no stress. There might be decisions about what I can eat etc., but what I should eat no longer bothers me. If I get annoyed by lack of food options somewhere, at least I am not being made anxious by my own indecision.

It has occurred to me that this is something I should investigate more. Doug was writing recently about conduct and Buddhist practice and touched on this. One of his bits of advice was:

If unsure, just don’t do it.

I think this mirrors how I made my decision about eating meat. If I was doubting the ethical ramifications of my actions, it’s simply best to not engage in that action. I also agree with Doug when he encourages disciple, which reminded me of the Leo Tolstoy essay which also inspired my decision:

In order to be moral people must cease to eat meat? Not at all.

I only wish to say that for a good life a certain order of good actions is indispensable; that if a man’s aspirations toward right living be serious they will inevitably follow one definite sequence; and that in this sequence the first virtue a man will strive after will be self-control, self-restraint.

I fell that beyond just living in a way I feel to be right, the effort of practising some kind of self-restraint and disciple is helpful.

I’m of course not suggesting that it is easy to just stop engaging in any activity that is causing you anxiety. We all struggle with these things. But what I do think that if it is something that is relatively not difficult, but that it is still causing you grief and you want to give it up….why not today? It was save you anxiety and guilt over it. You might fail, but then you can start again. But you have to start.

Ecological awareness

Thus the point I am making in all these essays is that civilised people, whether Western or Eastern, need to be liberated and dehypnotized from their systems of symbolism and, thereby, become more intensely aware of the living vibrations of the real world. For lack of such awareness our consciousnesses and consciences have become calloused to the daily atrocities of burning children with napalm, of saturation bombing of fertile earth with all its plants, wild animals, and insects (not to mention people), and of manufacturing nuclear and chemical weapons concerning which the real problem is not so much how to prevent their use as how to get them off the face of the earth.

We need to become vividly aware of our ecology, of our interdependence and virtual identity with all other forms of life which the divisive and embossing methods of our current way of thought prevent us from experiencing. The so-called physical world and the so-called human body are a single process, differentiated only as the heart from the lungs or the head from the feet. In stodgy academic circles I refer to this kind of understanding as “ecological awareness.” Elsewhere it would be called “cosmic consciousness” or “mystical experience.” However, our intellectual and scientific “establishment” is, in general, still spellbound by the myth that human intelligence and feeling are a fluke of chance in an entirely mechanical and stupid universe–as if figs would grow on thistles or grapes on thorns. But wouldn’t it be more reasonable to see the entire scheme of things as continuous with our own consciousness and the marvellous neural organisation which, shall we say, sponsors it?

Metaphysical as such considerations may be, it seems to me that their issues are earthy and practical. For our radically mis-named “materialistic” civilisation must above all cultivate love of material, of earth, air, and water, of mountains and forests, of excellent food and imaginative housing and clothing, and of cherishing our artfully erotic contacts between human bodies. Certainly, all these so-called “things” are as impermanent as ripples in water, but what life, what love, what energy is there in a perfectly pure abstraction or a totally solid and eternally indestructible rock?

Alan Watts – Does It Matter?

Consider The Veggie Burger

Last week I completed a mini personal challenge of 7 days without eating meat. It’s the second time I’ve done such a thing recently, both conducted mainly as experiments into how easy I would find it.

For a while now I’ve been considering my stance on meat eating. I’ve been a carnivore my whole life, and never really gave it much thought. I guess I started considering it when I started going out with a vegetarian, but she has never been preachy nor particularly interested in ‘converting’ me. I think the main influence from her has been that since we started living together I began to cook less and less meat until I stopped completely. It became impractical to cook separate meals so often, and as I began eating the same food as her I became exposed to the different ways you can prepare meals without meat. As such, I have bought and cooked meat about twice in the past 4 years or so.

My philosophical viewpoint on meat-eating first began to change as I explored Buddhism. It’s a common misconception that Buddhists = vegetarians, but there is no such ‘rule’ or ‘precept’ that forbids the eating of meat. It is true, however, that Buddhism tends to vegetarianism. The reason being that at the heart of the Buddha’s teaching is compassion for _all sentient beings_. We also have the first precept, which is “I undertake the training rule to abstain from taking life.” Now, this can be interpreted in different ways. Technically, eating meat is not the taking of life. The person at the slaughter house does that. But others argue that by eating meat you are creating the demand for that slaughter to happen.

As it is, there is no compulsion for lay Buddhists to abstain from meat. It is more common for monks and nuns, however, to do so. This isn’t so clear cut either, though, as with the myriad schools and sects of Buddhism ideas differ. It is often taught that monks and nuns should avoid meat, but if they are offered it, should not turn it down.

I practice in the Kagyu school of Buddhism, and recently the head of the Kagyu, His Holiness the Karmapa, ordered that Kagyu monks, nuns and their monasteries and centres become vegetarian. He has stressed the importance of abstaining from meat for Buddhists and has encouraged it amongst lay followers.

Last year I saw a series of talks by Drupon Rinpoche on the generation of compassion during which he spoke of the practice of contemplating that due to countless rebirths, everyone you encounter has at some stage been your mother. Or as His Holiness the Dalai Lama puts it:

the Tibetan Buddhist tradition teaches us to view all sentient beings as our dear mothers and to show our gratitude by loving them all. For, according to Buddhist theory, we are born and reborn countless numbers of times, and it is conceivable that each being has been our parent at one time or another. In this way all beings in the universe share a family relationship.

The Karmapa references this when advising on vegetarianism

If a Mahayana practitioner, who considers all sentient beings to be like their father or mother, eats the flesh of another being out of carelessness and without any compassion, that is not good. So we need to think about this and pay attention to it. All of us Mahayana practitioners, who accept that all sentient beings have been our mothers and fathers, need to think about this. For that reason, it would be good to decrease the amount of meat that we eat.

This is to be taken by Buddhists as a statement of reality but also a powerful practice for generating compassion for all beings. Animals included. As I pondered this, I couldn’t help but escape the fact that eating a beings flesh is not very compassionate.

This planted a seed in my head. This seed then spurred me to consider the topic from a non-religious direction, and to investigate the ethics of eating meat. This reoccured to me when I was watching the movie “Samsara” last year. There is a sequence in a chicken factory where you see a conveyor belt of chickens being sucked up into a machine alive. The scene hit me like a punch to the gut. The more you learn about how animals are treated before they get to your plate, the most you must face up to, and consider your opinion of those creatures.

I keep coming across more and more stuff which challenges my habits. There’s a great documentary called King Corn about two guys who decide to grow an acre of corn and follow it into the food system. The sequence on cattle feeding is disturbing, outlining how for quick and cheap meat, cows are fed corn which their stomachs cannot handle. They are fattened up and kept alive just enough to keep them going til slaughter. If they are not slaughtered, the damage the corn does will kill them anyway. They also barely get to move, so live their lives being force fed to the point of death.

I also discovered David Foster Wallace’s classic essay “Consider The Lobster” – ostensibly about the Maine Lobster Festival, but really about the ethics of boiling live animals for your pleasure. He writes:

Is it not possible that future generations will regard our own present agribusiness and eating practices in much the same way we now view Nero’s entertainments or Aztec sacrifices? My own immediate reaction is that such a comparison is hysterical, extreme—and yet the reason it seems extreme to me appears to be that I believe animals are less morally important than human beings; and when it comes to defending such a belief, even to myself, I have to acknowledge that

(a) I have an obvious selfish interest in this belief, since I like to eat certain kinds of animals and want to be able to keep doing it, and
(b) I have not succeeded in working out any sort of personal ethical system in which the belief is truly defensible instead of just selfishly convenient.

For me these two points hit home hard.

I am not a vegetarian, but intellectually I now more or less agree with the stance. Thus I am now attempting to wean myself off meat. The main stumbling block are occasions when I eat out and my own selfish and lazy tendencies. Most pressing is that I am somewhat of a picky eater (although a lot better than when I was younger), and in particular my distaste for cheese and eggs. These are problematic because from my experience of my girlfriend’s dealings with the world as a vegetarian, cheese and eggs are a common options. Again, these are only really issues when eating out – and more acutely when getting sandwiches for lunch (If there is a Subway nearby, however, this problem is solved thanks to their veggie pattys). The common response to this is “go vegan”, and that may be a long term option – but it still doesn’t solve my problems when trying to eat away from home. It also doesn’t help that Ireland is only slowly coming to offering decent options for vegetarians. I’ve seen numerous occasions where my girlfriend rolls her eyes at the bog standard veggie meals offered. I have noticed a sea change though, even pubs and the like getting in on the action with veggie burgers of various styles being offered.

To my end, I am following a few guidelines to help me significantly reduce my meat intake:

  • No meat at home. This is pretty easy, and I’ve become well used to cooking curries and stir frys and the likes without meat. I’ve also become quite fond of meat-replacements like Quorn and Cheatin’.
  • Making packed lunches more and more.
  • If I’m eating out and I like the veggie option, I try and go for that. Also, if I know there are veggie options nearby at lunch for instance, I go for that. This will mean putting my heart before my stomach. Even if prefer the chicken dish, if I like the veggie, dish I’ll order that.
  • Red meat is out. This is a common enough tactic I believe – to gradually reduce the meats you consume. Beef will be first.

I’m not trying to become preachy in all this. I mean, I’m not a vegetarian. But I have caught myself giving out about meat consumption, even whilst I am eating chicken. It’s a personal choice, but one which I am grappling with a lot now. But I am finding it harder and harder to justify eating meat. If I really think about what I am chewing, and I consider the life of that creature, it troubles me.

At War With The Mystics

I really dislike when people use the word ‘mystical’ as a pejorative term. It’s usually used as a signifier for some kind of airy-fairy New Age thing, or generally for religion itself. Someones religious views are dismissed as ‘mystical nonsense’ – even if the beliefs themselves have nothing to do with mysticism. I read an article today about a Catholic priest’s views on abortion which was labelled as ‘mystical’. I don’t think these people have any idea what mysticism is, or that it has an actual meaning.

Good Friday

We must see Christ as the great mystic, in the proper sense of the word. A mystic is not someone who has all sorts of magical powers and understands spirits and so on. A mystic is one who realizes union with God. This seems to me the crux and message of the gospel. It is summed up in the prayer Saint John records Jesus speaking over his disciples: “May you be one, even as the Father and I are one, that you may be all one.” May we all realize this divine sonship or daughtership or oneness, this basic identity with the eternal energy of the universe, the love that moves the sun and other stars

Alan Watts